Tuesday, April 2, 2013

How To Host a Comedy Show - By: Kenny DeForest

Before we even get in to this, understand that Iʼm writing this article for selfish reasons. I want you to get better at hosting shows so I donʼt have to do it so goddamn much. Cool? Cool. Donʼt get me wrong, I love the stage time and I actually like hosting, but I donʼt know how many more times I can say “How you guys feelinʼ tonight? OH COME ON YʼALL CAN DO BETTER THAN THAT! THAT WAS MONDAY ENERGY! LET ME ASK YʼALL AGAIN, HOW YʼALL DOINʼ ON A SATURDAY MOTHER FUCKINʼ NIGHT??!!!” without putting cyanide in my vodka soda and taking a headfirst dive in to the front row. So, with that said, you down to help a brotha out? Good. You better be. Because, the truth is, learning to properly host a comedy show is the single most valuable thing Iʼve done in my “career” so far (Besides, of course, writing and delivering decent jokes). Hosting is something Iʼve worked very hard at and, while I certainly wouldnʼt say Iʼve MASTERED the art of hosting, I can confidently say Iʼve gotten pretty good at it and I thought Iʼd pass along a few things Iʼve learned along the way to help you out.

NOTE: Before you stop reading this because youʼre such a good comic you donʼt need this, know this: Being a good comic does not equate to being a good host. There are plenty of great comics that are garbage hosts and plenty of decent hosts that are garbage comics. They are not 100% correlated, but getting good at one can help the other. Ok, on with the “article”.

Now, before I can tell you how to host shows, I need to make sure you understand WHY you need to host shows. I hear a lot of young comics (I feel weird saying this when I too am a young comic, but I mean younger than me) saying things like “I donʼt host” or “I hate hosting” or “Iʼm not comfortable hosting” or “I just want to go straight to featuring”. To you I say this: Go right ahead and start fucking yourself with something jagged and donʼt stop until I tell you youʼre done and then do it a little more and then find a new profession. You think the host of any given show “likes hosting” or doesnʼt want to “go straight to featuring” or started out “comfortable hosting”? Weʼd ALL rather be doing regular spots where we can flush out our material, drink our free drinks, and then go home as soon as weʼre done and/or continue getting shit-faced while not paying attention to the rest of the show. But guess what? Life donʼt work that way playa. Thereʼs a hierarchy to this business weʼve chosen and hosting shows is like being a private in the Army. Itʼs a lot of grunt work, but itʼs where youʼve got to start and, if you do your job well and keep your mouth shut about it, you can get that promotion quicker than you think. Sure, youʼre going to feel like a giant, inflated douche getting folks all excited and clapping about the show only to then have to tell them to tune in to “Whacky Wallyʼs Whack-off Yuck-Yuck Hour every Thursday morning at 2:30AM on 85.3FM WLOL to hear the comics...” but itʼs a necessary evil because, simply put, being a good host is the fastest way to open doors for yourself early on in your career. Itʼs a great way to gain favor with bookers and other comics alike.

Bookers are a lot more willing to book someone that impressed them with a guest set or at an open mic to host than they are to book them to feature. They probably arenʼt going to book you to do 20-30 minutes based on the 2-5 they saw you do earlier that year. What they MIGHT do, however, is have you host a show so they can watch you do 10 min and interact with the crowd a couple of times and then maybe, just MAYBE, have you back to feature after youʼve proven yourself and built a relationship with them. In addition to building relationships with bookers, hosting well will help you build relationships with the comics featuring and headlining. Trust me, they REALLY appreciate a good host because a good host means, ideally, a more engaged, focused audience for them. They know hosting sucks as much as anybody because chances are they started out doing it themselves, so they appreciate watching a guy or gal put their neck on the line and invest themselves in doing their job well. And, if you do in fact do your job well, chances are that feature or headliner will remember that and request you to host, or maybe even feature, next time he or sheʼs back in your area of the country; potentially at a club youʼve never worked before (Another door opens).

Aside from the “business benefits”, hosting shows PROPERLY will greatly improve and expand your overall ability as a performer. You are the first person the audience is seeing in a given night, so youʼre being thrown right in to the fire (which is why a lot of people hate it), but the beautiful thing about the fire is that itʼs where learning happens. To me, the biggest performance benefit of this is learning how to deal with hecklers and controlling the energy of the room. Chances are, a problem audience member will reveal themselves during your opening set. This is because problem audience members rarely BECOME problems; they show up that way. A comedy show is generally 1.5 hours long, so unless someone is drastically exceeding the 2 drink minimum and in a hurry, chances are they showed drunk and obnoxious. Couple this with the fact that youʼre the first asshole they see on a cold stage, and you can see why that person thinks they can break you with a heckle and steal the show. Donʼt let them. Remember youʼre in control and youʼll learn to handle it gracefully. Host enough shows, and you will become bulletproof. You will also get incredibly sharp at thinking on your feet. Thatʼs pretty important if you ask me.

The main reason to invest time in becoming a good host, if you ask me though, is simple: Itʼs called PAY YOUR FUCKING DUES. Hosting is an art-form of itʼs own and being good at it is a great contribution to your scene. Good hosts are hard to come by, so be one and youʼre helping everyone including yourself

NOTE: Here comes the helpful stuff. If youʼve read this far, youʼre worthy of my “wisdom” (lucky you right?)
Because lists are easier to follow, here my tips on hosting:

1) MAKE THEM LIKE YOU: When you take the stage, the first thing you should be focused on is making them like you. This is as simple as doing little things like smiling and having energy. You should be having the most fun in the room from the get-go.

Iʼm not saying go up there like a fucking spastic improv team doing an opening, but be excited to be there. Be loose. This is fun. Itʼs comedy. This is more of a mind set than anything that leads us to number 2.

1) GET THE AUDIENCE EXCITED TO BE THERE AND FOCUS THE ROOM: Before you tell a single joke, your focus should be on getting the audience EXCITED, CLAPPING, AND FOCUSED. If you have a 10 minute hosting set, the first 2-4 minutes should be spent in a conversation with the audience. TALK TO, NOT AT THE AUDIENCE. You have to grab their attention. Establish that this is YOUR show. Make sure the audience knows who daddy (or mommy) is for the evening. If you see someone who looks disengaged, call them out. “Uncross your arms, sir, thatʼs a shitty way to watch a show...” “Why are you two all cuddled up like that..” “You know we can see you right, maʼam...”. This may sound cheesy, but itʼs helpful because it puts the audience on the toes and forces them to pay attention for fear of being called out. To keep the audience clapping and build excitement, ask questions and riff off the answers. Things like “Howʼs everyone doing tonight?”, “By round of applause (make sure you say this or people will raise their hands for reasons unbeknownst to me) whoʼs been to a show with us before?”, “Whoʼs here for the first time?”, “Whoʼs been to a comedy show before (Youʼd be surprised)?”, “Is anybody celebrating anything tonight? Birthdays? Anniversaries? Bachelor or bachelorette parties?”, “Is anyone on a date tonight?”, “Whoʼs visiting from out of town?” etc. Not only do these questions create crowd-work opportunities, but they make the audience feel special for being there. We care about you, so now you care about us type of deal. You donʼt have to address all of these questions, but these are just a few ways to get some easy laughs, build excitement and focus, and get the show rolling. People love watching a comic interact with the audience and, like I said, it forces them to pay attention. Donʼt be a dick, but have fun with them. Pretend youʼre fucking around with your friends because, hopefully, youʼve made them feel like your friends.

2) CONGRATULATE THE AUDIENCE ON MAKING A WISE CHOICE: Pretty self explanatory, but after you get them going and have their attention, say something like “Well welcome again to the show and congratulations on making such a wise choice on how to spend your evening tonight. Weʼre going to have a lot of fun because we have a great show lined up for you tonight”. Again. The idea is to build excitement.

3) EXPLAIN THE SHOW: You have to make sure they understand how a comedy show works. Youʼd be surprised by how few people in the grand scheme of things have ever been to a stand up comedy show before. You know how most people hear you do stand-up comedy and ask if you do things at Second City? Assume thatʼs your audience. After you say “We have a great show for you tonight”, maybe say something to the affect of “so letʼs go ahead an give a round of applause for everyone youʼre going to see tonight...” If itʼs a 3 comics show like most clubs are you can say “Your headliner tonight has been seen on (credits) and his name is ______ let him hear it. And your feature (Credits) Name) let him hear it. Iʼm ____ and Iʼll be your host for the evening so Iʼll be up and down all night long...” If itʼs a showcase style show with 5 or more comics going up, you can either quickly list all the comics for applause if it feels right or just say “Iʼll be your host tonight so Iʼll be up and down all night introducing some of Chicagoʼs finest comedians so give them a round of applause...”. At this point you should be 3-6 minutes in to your 10 minute set.

4) TRANSITION RIGHT IN TO YOUR JOKES: After youʼve gotten them settled, excited, focused, and informed, you can transition in to your jokes. Iʼm never one to tell folks what to do with their stage time, but I always try to stick to material I know works. Iʼm not saying do A bits that youʼre bored with, but at least stick to material youʼve said in front of a real audience a couple of times and know the punch-lines to. As the host, you have to put the show first. This is not your open mic. NOTE: YOU CAN ABSOLUTELY CROWD WORK THE WHOLE TIME IF YOUʼRE COMFORTABLE AND THE AUDIENCE DIGS IT. YOUR CALL, BUT MAKE SURE THEYʼRE LAUGHING. THIS IS ALSO WHERE HOSTING HELPS YOU BY MAKING YOU LOOSER WITHIN YOUR MATERIAL AND WITH YOUR TRANSITIONS

5) KNOW YOUR CLOSER: As host, itʼs important not to run the light because the audience is there to see the headliner (whether they know the person or not). If you need a 2 minute light, do it and make sure you know how youʼre closing and that itʼs something strong. Thereʼs nothing worse then ending a host set on a dud because youʼve effectively killed everything youʼve worked so hard to build to that point. Save that banger for the end so you know what to do when you get the light.

7) BUILD THE APPLAUSE TO A CRESCENDO BEFORE YOU INTRO FIRST COMIC: After you hit them with that banger closer we talked about, say something to the effect of “Are you guys ready for your NEXT comedian (not, first. You are the first comedian)?” and then no matter how they respond it isnʼt good enough. Do what you have to do to get them in to a frenzy and then bring up the next performer.

8) ANNOUNCEMENTS: There are times you are going to be asked to do announcements for the club. It sucks. It always feels awkward and forced. My best advice is to just say what you need to say, throw in a joke if it feels awkward, and then keep the show moving. Also, be sure to sprinkle announcements throughout the show. Donʼt do them all at once as it will put a serious damper on the showʼs momentum. You can save several for the end if you arenʼt told specifically otherwise.

9) JOKES IN BETWEEN COMICS: Sometimes a comic on the show youʼre hosting is going to
bomb. In that situation, it is your job to pick up the slack and get the audience laughing again. Depending on how bad the bomb is, thereʼs a chance the audience has lost faith in the show. You have to show them that everything is going to be OK and what they just saw is out of the ordinary. Always have a couple bangers in your back pocket for if the situation should arise. However, IF THE COMICS ON THE SHOW ARE DOING WELL, JUST KEEP IT MOVING AND FOCUS ON KEEPING THEM EXCITED FOR THE NEXT COMIC. AGAIN, THIS IS NOT YOUR OPEN MIC. If time permits, you can sprinkle a couple bits in the middle of the show or, like I said to transition out of announcements, but by no means should you be doing 5 minutes between comics. Read the momentum. Jokes when needed, but none if theyʼre having fun. If you do your work up top and the booker knows what theyʼre doing (which Iʼll admit is rare) you shouldnʼt need to do much other than be an announcement person and cheerleader for the rest of the show. Again this is YOUR show, but itʼs not your workshop

10)THANK THE AUDIENCE AND PROMOTE THE COMICS/CLUB: First, I didnʼt know where to put it on the list, but at some point be sure to have the audience clap for the wait staff and remind them to tip. Not only is this a cheap way to keep the audience clapping, but the wait staff really appreciates it and you want the wait staff to be on

your side. They talk to their bosses about who they like and donʼt. Anyway, this oneʼs intuitive, but at the end of the show make sure you thank the audience for coming out have them give it up for themselves if you want to, and tell them where they can find the comics/club online. Donʼt be afraid to promote yourself (twitter/FB) too. You worked hard. You earned it

7) START AN OPEN MIC OR SHOWCASE TO PRACTICE THE ABOVE TIPS: How are you going to do a good job at a club if youʼve never hosted before? I had a basketball coach that told me success is when opportunity meets preparation. That might be the only thing I took from that prick, but it sure is a valuable lesson. Start a showcase or open mic and host the shit out of it. Work on your craft. Work on crowd work. Get comfortable in your own skin so you can stay loose. Then, when the booker finally gives you that date after months of excruciating email tag, youʼll be ready.

OK, thatʼs it. Thatʼs all the “knowledge” I have. These are not rules as much as they are suggestions. Every host should have the freedom to develop their own style and put their own twist on things. After all, itʼs YOUR show. This is just generally how I do it. Anyway, I hope this was helpful, because I REALLY donʼt want to drink cyanide. Now go fuck yourself until I tell you to stop...

DISCLAIMER: I learned NONE of this on my own. My "knowledge" is knowledge I'm passing along. I learned it all from asking the hosts before me, so feel free to do the same.

Contributing Writer
Kenny DeForest
Kenny is a Co-producer of Parlour Car , a hot new Chicago showcase, and a prolific comic in the local scene.